Gabriel joined with some of the pioneers of Swedish industry in exploiting the iron on some of his estates. Being illiterate, and perhaps not very good at running the ironworks himself, he was dependent on trustworthy employees. And some of them turned out to be less fortunate acquaintances.
The family ironworks
The Swedish iron industry was pioneered by the father of Swedish industry himself, Louis de Geer sr. (1587 – 1657), in that very area. In a time rife with wars, there was a huge demand for cannons and cannon balls, and Louis de Geer exploited this fully. This made him so rich that he actually lent money to the king at one point. A darker side to his riches, however, is his involvement in the first Swedish slave trade. His son, Louis de Geer jr., continued his ironworks business, but by then others had cottoned on and had started their own establishments.
Gabriel Gyllenståhl seems to have founded his own ironworks at Börgöl in 1674. This was a business which he cared very much about, and which his son-in-law Erik Alfort would later inherit. It is likely, however, that Gabriel bought the Börsjö estate with its ironworks because of a wish to establish a more extensive and lucrative iron business, perhaps inspired by the success of the de Geers. He didn’t stop there; for years he attempted to buy Ysunda Ironworks east of Finspång, but was stopped by the owner’s relatives. It was only in 1692 that he could finally buy half of the establishment, still under protests from the children. By then, the first of several legal disputes had recently arisen with another ironworks downstream from Börgöl, Lotorp, the owner of which accused them of using too much of the stream’s water power. In 1694, the owners had died, and Gyllenståhl bought it, too, once again under protest from their relatives.
Whatever his other qualities, Gabriel must have realized that he lacked the necessary knowhow to run the business at Börgöl, for in 1683 he sold half of it to Louis de Geer jr.; henceforth the two thrifty men ran the ironworks together. They obtained permission to operate it on condition that:
densamme skall drivas med egne kol, som ifrån dess frälse ägor i Börgöl och andre därom kringliggande lägenheter förskaffas kan, såsom och med det Tackjärn, som han vid odalbruket Finspång blåsa låter, eller eljest av sina bönder, som Skatte-Tackjärn bekomma kan, så att varken igenom tackjärns köpande eller kolens stegrande någre andre där omkring belägne verk prejudiceras eller skadas måge.
it be fuelled with his own coals, which are obtainable from his noble properties in Börgöl and other apartments thereabouts, as well as with the pig iron that he produces at the non-noble works at Finspång, or otherwise can obtain from his farmers as taxed pig iron, so that neither through the buying of pig iron or the use of coals any other works thereabouts suffer disadvantage or harm.
They were given a privilege to strike 310 skeppund bar iron, approximately 46.5 tonnes. The work needed a master smith (hammarsmedmästare) and 3-4 workers, and eventually they erected a frame saw and a flourmill on the premises. The activity also provided employment for many others – the raw iron needed to be brought in from ovens in Bergslagen, and prepared bar iron conveyed to Norrköping, coal needed to be extracted and transported, and foodstuffs procured for the ironworks depot.
When Börgöl Ironworks accidentally burned down in 1693, Louis de Geer didn’t want to rebuild it, but Gabriel was adamant. He eventually got a royal permission to rebuild it from his own funds. Thenceforth he owned it alone, on the condition of paying de Geer an annual sum of 15 daler in silver for continuing to use the stream’s water power. From then on, he would include a paragraph in the contracts with his master smiths that if it were damaged, they would be personally responsible for rebuilding it. He was not going to risk another expensive fire.
Gabriel never had the skill or the time to manage the works himself, so he hired people to oversee the production on his behalf at each of the ironworks. It was very important to choose the right man. At Börsjö, he had a manager (gårdsfogde) called Lars Jönsson. In the beginning, he was apparently content with his manager’s work, but in 1698, when the works performed poorly, their relationship started to get strained. Gabriel complained of the performance and drew up a contract with his manager to regulate the business. As this didn’t improve the results, he started to mistrust him, and finally accused him of embezzlement in 1703. Lars Jönsson protested his innocence. Unfortunately, we do not know how it all ended.
Perhaps Gabriel’s mistrust had its roots in his experience with another entrusted employee a few years before. In 1694, his secretary (handskrivare) Lars Påhlsson, had been condemned to death for repeated theft and embezzlement. It is clear from the documents left to use that the true cause of Gabriel’s idignation was not really the thefts so much as the implied breach of trust:
Såsom iag fast ogiärna måste beswära dhen Lofl. TingsRätten med min inlaga, emot min för detta handskrifware Lars Påhlsson, som iag har låtit lära läsa och skrifwa och födt upp, och tänkt intet annat än det skulle blifwit folk af honom, men så har han all sådan min godheet satt af sijdo och giordt sig till een skiählm och tiuf, uthi mångfaldige stycken som iag aldrig kan proclamera och beskrifwa
As I have reluctantly had to trouble the legal district court with my pleading against my former secretary Lars Påhlsson, whom I had sent to learn to read and write and had reared, and thought nothing but a man would be made of him, but thus he has ignored all my goodness and made himself a rogue and a thief, in numerous cases which I can never proclaim and describe
As Gabriel probably could not read and write himself, it was extremely important for him to be able to trust his secretary. In court, he enumerated the many cases of theft and embezzlement, and the lies told to him by his trusted secretary to account for the missing money and documents, betraying great bitterness. Several of his possessions had also been stolen from his home while he was ill and bedridden, among them a couple of his best pistols and a belt of elk hide adorned with a silver buckle. The swindler hade finally made off with a huge sum of money and boarded a ship for Stralsund, where he had joined the army, only to be rediscovered later and brought to court in Sweden.
When Gabriel died, 5/6 of Börgöl Ironworks were sold to the army secretary (mönsterskrivare) Hans Ekelund, “who however did not come into true possession until 17th September 1716” (som dock intet kam uti verklig Possession förrän 17 Sept 1716). From 1710 to 1716 the ironworks was thus run by his son-in-law Erik Alfort, who had inherited the last sixth through his wife. He restored the dilapidated works to service in 1712 and ran it himself until 1716 when it finally went out of the family. In 1727, Ekelund accused him of having illicitly appropriated his 5/6 of the works and used the resources for a decade without recompensing him. The famous Emanuel Swedenborg was one of the assors at the ensuing hearing in the College of Mines (Bergskollegiet).
The ironworks later grew and expanded its privileges and became a great success, until finally in the second half of the 19th century that type of ironworks became obsolete. The hammer was shut down in 1871, after 200 years of continuous banging.
icon-arrow-right The next section “A noble line goes extinct” is about Gabriel’s family life.